Guest blog by Phil Carson, RSPB NI Policy Officer (Sustainable Farming)

Northern Ireland and farming are intrinsically linked.

Representing 70% of land use, agriculture has had a monumental impact on the identity of the countryside and the people here. It directly employs 5.7% of the population and contributes more than £2 billion to the economy every year. It plays a fundamental role in binding rural communities together, as well as shaping the overall fabric of our countryside. For these reasons, farming has always received significant public support.

Since 1972 and the UK’s entry into the European Union, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been the primary mechanism of agricultural support in Northern Ireland. At present, the policy is split into two different pillars which have different objectives for agriculture.

Pillar One is focused on direct income support for farmers. It is allocated based on the amount of land that a farmer owns. Pillar two is a more results-based approach to support. It provides financial assistance to protect and enhance the environment, mitigate against climate change, increase competitiveness and support rural communities.

In Northern Ireland, most funding goes towards the Pillar One Basic Payment Scheme, which is tied to the amount of land owned by the farmer rather than any outcome. Although Pillar One payments have helped to keep farmers on the land, they are a poor use of public money due to the perverse outcomes that they produce.

Within the current system, the majority of Basic Payments go to those with the most land. In the UK with 64% of direct payments going to just 20% of farmers and farm businesses. This represents an inequitable system, in which those with the most land benefit primarily on the size of their farm.

Since its inception, the CAP has largely spelled disaster for the environment. In the UK we have lost more than 44 million breeding birds in less than half a century- vanishing at a rate of one per minute! Farming is responsible for over 50% of nitrogen in water and is a significant source of phosphates. This is no different in Northern Ireland, where we have seen large scale declines, localised extinctions, poor water quality and a loss of stored carbon from our soils.

By paying mostly for land owned rather than outcomes we fail to utilise the full potential of farming. If more effectively targeted, funding for agriculture can produce a wide range of additional benefits.

Leaving the European Union offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to change agricultural policy in Northern Ireland. At present, policy allocates significant public funding that provides little in terms of public benefit. We believe that this money should be repurposed to provide more of what society needs, such as a vibrant countryside rich in nature, clean air and water and resilient productive soils. By moving towards a policy that places environmental enhancement as its central aim, this will be within grasp.

RSPB NI and partners are backing the Nature Matters NI campaign to ensure that the environment is at the heart of a future agriculture policy for Northern Ireland. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is currently seeking everyone’s views on future farming policy here post-Brexit. Click this link to have your say: